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Improved efficiency - the climate's worst enemy?

By: Anthony James
13 May, 2012

Anthony James, Lecturer with the National Centre for Sustainability at Swinburne University of Technology asks whether improving efficiency may make our energy and climate problems worse:

The idea that improving efficiency makes sustainability problems worse seems counter-intuitive. But what if aiming to do more with less is actually doing the wrong thing right? If sustainability is our concern, this is almost always the case.

Doing more with less means we end up doing so much more that as a society we ultimately end up using more overall. This is called the Jevons Effect. It has been known for at least 147 years, though of course not commonly. If it was, we might be living sustainably by now. Recently, however, the problem of efficiency has been thrust back into the spotlight.

Amory Lovins and David Owen are two of the most prominent thinkers on the topic, with opposing views. Owen’s new book is The Conundrum: how scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse, and it includes the debate between the two that occurred after the publishing of Owen’s earlier feature article in The New Yorker in late 2010. We’ve been using this article with our postgraduate sustainability students at Swinburne University’s National Centre for Sustainability. We’ll now use the book, as students examine the issue in some detail.

The Conundrum was last month featured on Radio National’s Life Matters program, during which the host Natasha Mitchell said that it left her feeling impotent and pessimistic. This is very different to the reactions we get in the classroom.

Exploring the implications of the Jevons Effect often engenders a sense of empowerment and a resurgence of hope. After all, if acting on a belief in technology as the answer, and efficiency as the key, is proving counter-productive – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is – then here is a logical framework for understanding why that is happening, and how we might explore real sources of sustainability.

Lovin's famous counter to Owen's argument is that efficiency is: "a lunch you’re paid to eat"; a more efficient car uses less energy, saving the environment while saving you money. But as Owen puts it, the world hasn’t lost weight by being paid to eat. Improving efficiency almost always results in increased aggregate consumption.

This has also been called the Rebound Effect, but it is more pernicious than that. Owen suggests it might be better termed the Chain Effect. As we improve efficiency in one thing, say the fridge, its reduced costs make it accessible to more of us.

And we don’t just go on to use bigger fridges and more of them (developing ideas like bar fridges, meat fridges etc.), we create and expand related spin-off cooling technologies, industries and activities. Air conditioning has become a "must", we expect access to food from all over the world any time of year, and see refrigerated spaces in supermarkets take up increasing amounts of space as our demand for chilled goods increases.

All that also conveys the sense that the food we buy will last longer than it does, resulting in increasingly excessive food consumption, and food waste (4 million tons a year in Australia alone). Of course, not only is the food wasted, so too is the energy used to produce, transport, buy, store, and dispose of it.

And as Catherine Simpson outlined recently on The Conversation, we do all this while feeling better about being "green". With the right car or fridge, we need care less about how we drive, eat and shop.

It is time to blow our minds

So if improving efficiency takes us backwards in sustainability terms, what are we to do? Far from hemming us in to more limited options, we are liberated from the unintended harm stemming from an old, flawed idea.

We evolve the eyes for seeing far greater possibilities that serve to engender more care, rather than less, for our impacts upon each other and the rest of nature. We set our minds towards creating systems and institutions that help us live in more considerate, fulfilling, and less materially intensive ways. Past a certain material threshold, which most of us have passed in this country, these qualities very often go hand in hand.

There is plenty of evidence indicating diminishing returns in quality of life beyond certain thresholds of energy use and economic growth, while environmental impacts continue to grow (and these are far from limited to climate change). The renowned work of Vaclav Smil and others suggests that in many industrialised countries like Australia, this threshold has been surpassed, and in a big way.

Improving efficiency is very often doing the wrong thing right. Perhaps we would do better to think about efficiency in terms of evolving more (wellbeing, wisdom, care, etc) with less, rather than doing more for its own sake. What we do and why, are far more important questions than how. The former needs to guide the latter, rather than the reverse.

Have your say...

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Geoff Thomas | Monday, May 14, 2012, 1:57 PM
The assumption is that the person who deliberately chooses more efficient whatever is mindless, that despit deliberately choosing this item he then has no idea that using more is counter productive, - my experience is that is not the case, most folk who choose energy efficient devices have that attitude right across the board, so the assumption above that more efficient means less, does not apply. There may be some folk out there who only buy such appliances to "keep up with the joneses" or some such image reason without any understanding of what they are doing, but as they are mindless, I don't know that changing anything would have any effect on them, in fact would only stop them going energy efficient at all. Different if one has a renewable energy electricity supply, - then one is tempted to use more but in fact using more, as long as you don't exceed your renewable energy input, does indeed do no harm. No quarrel with the comment on wellbeing, wisdom, care, etc. Cheers, Geoff.
archibald | Monday, May 14, 2012, 2:49 PM
Someone will blow a brain this way and that will certainly make matters worse for them. How these people think the world is going to be better for it beats me.
Nick | Thursday, May 17, 2012, 12:25 PM
I think the thrust of the argument is fundamentally sensible. Focussing soleley on being efficient means we end up doing more and having a bigger aggregate impact. So if the intent is to have less adverse impact we have to question what we do and why ahead of how. Of the course the "how" still matters. It just isn't everything.
Mike Purtell | Friday, May 25, 2012, 12:45 PM
I think this article is fundamentally flawed and nieve -energy efficiency at present is driving the economy -retro fits, carbon trading on energy efficiency achievements are becoming abundant -they are systems that provide much needed oxygen for change in our existing and inefficient commercial world -many businesses survive on narrow margins of viability & encouragement to retrofit for energy efficiency makes significant sense. It improves the bottom line. Sure your points on achieving "true" sustainability in our community in a much much more wholistic sense is "ALSO" important but the article seems to be divorced from the real world and in danger of being just another idealistic point of view. We have embarked on a large front to try to achieve lower & more sustainable systems with our existing infrastructure so we can drastically reduce our energy use in what we do. Sure if we were to land on a manmade island at sea and start again -we could then take up your pure sustainability call and impliment the right way but here on planet earth we must be grounded and work with what we have inherited -that demands a large drive in energy effieiency that "has only just begun" and will transform our whole economy down the track.
Kermit | Tuesday, May 29, 2012, 11:18 AM
The whole process of reducing cost is counterproductive to the wellbeing of mankind....every time we hear of cost savings, downsizing, increased efficiency, using less recourses it means only one thing less people having the opportunity to sustain their way of life...people lose jobs. I started in the computing industry in 1998, there was great excitement that everyone would work less hours for the same pay and society would be a better place..."more time to smell the roses and improve family life"...Enter greedy big business (which was inevitable) and now we are all fighting like the third world for a chance to "survive", everyone is working less time at each job for less money and two people have to work (husband and wife) where they can at odd and many hours to sustain a living (existence). Counterproductive for the well being of the people....or have I missed something here? The news now is full of big business professing to be making things better...like importing "slaves" to work the mines cheaper...I rest my case!